Jan van der Crabben
published on 23 February 2011
The ancient Near East, and the Fertile Crescent in particular, is generally seen as the birthplace of agriculture. In the fourth millennium BC this area was more temperate than it is today, and it was blessed with fertile soil, two great rivers (the Euphrates and the Tigris), as well as hills and mountains to the north.
The region was highly diverse in terms of agricultural production, both in terms of regional crop yields, and annual variation (up to 100x more grain was harvested in particularly good years). Many harvests were destroyed by drought or flooding. Artificial irrigation systems existed, but people preferred to rely on the rainy, hilly areas to ensure a more even spread of precipitation.
In the drier regions, agriculture was only possible with irrigation canals. The Urartians were the masters of canal building, and many of their irrigation systems still exist. The main canals were generally created and maintained by the state, and the small ones by the farmers or the local communities. As it is still the case today, irrigated farmland was under constant threat of salination.
The soil, particularly in the flood plains of Babylonia and Assyria, was prone to dry up, harden and crack. In order to keep the soil arable, the plow had to be used. By 3000 BC plows were known and in wide use – many Assyrian kings boasted to have invented a new improved type of plow.
The main types of grain that were used for agriculture were wheat, barley, millet, and emmer. Rye and oats were not yet known for agricultural use. In Babylonia, Assyria, and the Hittite lands, barley was the main grain for human use: It was a widely used form of payment, and flat bread was made from barley. The smallest unit of weight was the equivalent of one grain (1/22 g). Beer and luxury foods were made from wheat and emmer.
Harvest required significant manpower, as there was immense time pressure on completing the harvest before winter set in. Grain was cut with a sickle, dried in shacks, and threshed by driving animals over the grain to "tread out" the grain. The grain was then either stored in granaries, or transported away along the waterways (sometimes even exported to other countries). In the granaries, cats and mongooses were used to protect from mice.
Other agricultural products include sesame (derived from the Akkadian word šamaššammu), which was widely cultivated and used to make oil. Olive oil was produced in the mountains. Flax was used to make linen cloth. Peas were cultivated in Mesopotamia, while lentils were preferred in Palestine. Figs, pomegranate, apple, and pistachio groves were found throughout the Fertile Crescent. In villages and cities of southern Mesopotamia groves of date palms were common. The dates were eaten either fresh or dried, and palm wood was also used in crafts, but not in construction.